MANCHESTER UNITED vs CRYSTAL PALACE
After a resounding victory in Moscow United returned to league action with a home game against bottom placed Crystal Palace. This was United’s last home game for almost a month so it was an opportunity United couldn’t afford to pass up.
In: Jones, Valencia, Fellaini, Mata and Rashford.
Out: Lindelof, Bailly, Blind, Herrera and Martial.
After having utilised a 3-5-2 in Moscow United reverted to a 4-2-3-1 shape with Rashford and Mata in the wide attacking areas and Matic and Fellaini as the pivots. United changed to a 4-3-3 only late in the game when the match was over as a contest but in so doing they were adopting a third different formation in a week, demonstrating tactical or at least strategic flexibility. Crystal Palace set up as a 4-2-3-1 and stuck to that shape throughout.
United’s starting shape with Rashford who had an excellent game on the left
The difference between the two teams approaches though was in their attacking intent, which is as one would have expected. United took the initiative, scoring in the third minute and never looked back; the victory was never in doubt from that moment onwards. Crystal Palace were more cautious and adopted a generally defensive approach so that their shape often morphed into a 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-5-1 with the three advanced midfield players dropping deep.
United’s early goal by Mata, Rashford providing the assist from the left
Henrkh Mkhitarayan provided a standout performance in Moscow consistently finding space between the two lines of CSKA’s defence and midfield. In this game however he was far less effective. Why? The answer to this is probably to do with Crystal Palace’s defensive approach. No doubt Roy Hodgson will have analysed the game in midweek and briefed his side accordingly. What we saw here from Crystal Palace was two banks of defensive lines comprising a back four with either a 3 or 5 in front of them. They did two things to restrict United’s attempts to repeat their display in Moscow. Firstly, they left absolutely no space between their two line, both sat deep. Secondly they defended on a narrow front with the more advanced of their two lines.
This meant that the central area of the pitch just outside their penalty area was very crowded with little opportunity to play through the middle of the pitch. Palace were prepared to surrender some space in wide areas but not through the middle. As a consequence, United tended to channel the ball into the wide areas, often from the centre with diagonal moves from the centre to the wings as they advanced. Unlike in Moscow this meant that Mkhitaryan could find little space and saw little of the ball which in turn resulted in the player moving wide to involve himself. This is borne out by an analysis of his action areas, but it meant that he was generally far less effective than he had been in the earlier match.
All four of United’s goals came from attacking moves which were played through United’s left wing area, even if one of those was a set piece delivery from that side. At the start Rashford, ably supported by Young was a real threat and between them they regularly overloaded Ward with Andros Townsend often caught out of shape. On the other side Valencia ploughed more of a lone thorough with Mata moving inside from his starting position. Later Martial took over on the left and carried on where he had left off in Russia with his aggressive direct running.
Fellaini’s second goal from Rashford’s excellent set piece delivery from the left
United could and should have scored more in this game and would have done if their delivery from the wide areas was better. They scored when they got the delivery right; two low cut backs, one from Rashord to Mata for the opening goal, one from Martial for the last goal. Between these goals two inch perfect high crosses onto the head of Fellaini delivered the goals that secured a 4-0 win. This shouldn’t hide the fact however that the rest of the delivery was not at this level and between the goals, Palace coped fairly well with United’s dominance of the game. Palace surrendered space in wide areas and paid the price for it even if United didn’t make as much of it as they might have done.
Scoring the third goal in the 49th minute Jose Mourinho was free to make changes from a relatively comfortable position. Often this season with a narrow lead United have waited for the opponent to adopt a more ambitious approach I order to try to get back into the game and then have picked them off with counter attacks. This didn’t happen here of course as with such a large deficit Palace seemed resigned to their fate, but Mourinho changed things anyway.
Initially the substitutions didn’t affect the general strategy with Lingard replacing Mkhitaryan who seemed to have drifted out of the game. This was a straight swap although Lingard instantly adopted a more aggressive approach that Mkhitaryan had done. He was far more fluid in his movement, often dropping deep and running with the ball from a deep position or across the pitch from a high position. This seemed to invigorate United’s attack at a point when the game was settling into a rut. This first change came in the 66th minute and was followed in the 72nd by Martial replacing Rashford. Up to the time of these changes United had generally adopted a passing approach usually channelling the ball wide before looking to deliver a cross. Now they were more likely to run at the Palace defence, often starting wide and moving diagonally towards the penalty area.
United’s shape and personnel as the made substitutions late in the game
Then in the 77th minute United made their final change replacing Mata with Herrera. This change resulted in United making a change to their shape with the side now forming up a s a 4-3-3. Matic anchored the midfield with Herrera to the right and Fellaini to the left in more advanced positions. Ahead of that pair Lukaku retained his central position with Martial to the left and Lingard to the right. It was very noticeable that playing with two more advanced midfield players and a wider higher attacking line United were more effective as a pressing force often winning the ball in high areas. Herrera was particularly effective in this and United were then able from the inevitable transitions to quickly move the ball to Lingard or Martial who had opportunity to instantly run at Palace delivering early balls before Palace were set in a defensive shape. This is illustrated by United’s last goal.
United’s final goal scored by Lukaku with an excellent delivery from the left by Martial
We have made this point before but it’s worth making again; it is clearly not now a case of Rashford or Martial but both. Regularly this season one or other of these two players has started the game and run the legs off the opposition on the left hand side before then making way for the other around the 70th minute mark. Then the other of the pair has prospered in the final twenty minutes against the oppositions tiring legs.
Rashford action areas, (left) and Martial, (right); quite a double act
Martial as the substitute didn’t score of course; the substitute in this scenario frequently has, but he did have an impact. Rashford was excellent early in the game and then Martial carried on the good work.
This was an easy win against a modest opponent low on confidence, but a win is a win is a win and in recent years United have often struggled to beat many teams that they should easily have defeated. Fortunately, United no longer seem to labour against this sought of opponent; there will be tougher tests ahead but United continue to grow and now seem to have enough pace and strength to win the games they should win and so are building a solid base to their season.